The best advocates are often converts. So it is with Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.
Brooks has an important forthcoming book, The Road to Freedom, which I’ll discuss in a minute, but it’s worth pausing over the unusual career of Brooks himself, because it says much about happiness, free enterprise, and the unique American spirit that Brooks has spent the last decade attempting to save.
The son of two liberal college professors, Brooks writes that when he was growing up in Seattle, “No one in my world voted for Ronald Reagan. I had no friends or family who worked in business. I believed what most everybody in my world assumed to be true: that capitalism was a bit of a sham to benefit rich people, and the best way to get a better, fairer country was to raise taxes, increase government services, and redistribute more income.”
Brooks became a professional musician, playing the French horn with the Annapolis Brass Quintet and with the Barcelona City Orchestra and also teaching music. But a musical career didn’t fulfill him. “I [had] what some considered the best job possible, yet was unhappy. . . . My friends in the orchestra thrived on what they were doing. . . . They spent their vacations at classical music conventions and heatedly discussed the most esoteric details of the lacquer on their instruments.”
Like most Americans, Brooks wanted more from his career than a paycheck. He wanted to derive a deeper satisfaction. Because he had skipped college to “go pro,” he began taking courses at night, eventually pocketing bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in social science.
By valuing work so highly that he was willing diligently to study music and then even more sedulously to master social science, Brooks was living out America’s promise of the “pursuit of happiness.”
In his new book, Brooks argues that it is part of the American character to value work. “Americans work 50 percent more than the Italians, the French, and even the Germans.” Why? Cosseted socialists in Europe would say it’s because we’re terrified of losing our jobs. But Brooks points to research showing that the more hours Americans work, the happier they report themselves to be. Only 11 percent of Americans say they wish they could spend a lot less time on their jobs.
The American work ethic can be eroded though, and will be, Brooks argues, by an expanding welfare state. It isn’t just that people who believe life to be unfair demand that governments “equalize” outcomes. It’s that once governments undertake to equalize things, people begin to believe that success is more a matter of luck than of hard work. A 2005 study of 29 countries found that where taxes are high and wealth is redistributed through social programs, people are much more likely to believe that success is a result of luck.
When government confiscates from some to give to others, the givers are affected. Or maybe they start out that way. Redistributionists are a lot less charitable than free-marketeers. A 1996 study found that people who disagreed that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality,” gave four times as much to charity as those who agreed. And those who disagreed “strongly” gave eleven times as much.
Charity aids the giver as well as the recipient. Teenagers who volunteered their time were far less likely five years later to report serious life problems than those who didn’t volunteer. Americans who donate to charities (time or money) are 43 percent more likely to describe themselves as happy compared with those who don’t. When the state expands and soaks up more and more of the helping opportunities for those in need, it creates “learned helplessness” among the needy and deprives others of the improving possibilities of charity and service.
Americans remain, for now, an aspirational people, less seduced by the politics of envy than Europeans are. But with every passing day, that spirit is being sapped by the government behemoth. Brooks relates a telling anecdote from the singer Bono:
In Ireland people have an interesting attitude to success; they look down on it. In America, you look up at . . . the mansion on the hill and say, “One day . . . that could be me.” In Ireland, they look up at the mansion on the hill and go, “One day I’m gonna get that bastard.”
That’s the spirit of the Democratic party. It’s the mode of President Obama’s demonization of “millionaires and billionaires.” If successful, Brooks warns, it will smother the greatest engine for prosperity — especially for the poor — in human history.